Signs Preceding the End of the World
Translated by Lisa Dillman
& Other Stories, paperback, 114 pages,
Signs Preceding the End of the World narrates the journey of Makina, a young woman who braves crossing the border between Mexico and the USA in search of her missing brother. The novel’s title is apt, conveying the approach of the US-Mexican border as both the geographical and metaphorical end of Makina’s world as she knows it and alluding to the book’s apocalyptic nature with its overtones of mass exodus and undercurrents of violence.
Indeed, Signs Preceding the End of the World is filled with layers of meaning and symbolism, with Herrera’s brilliant command of visual metaphors effortlessly weaving together a host of narrative threads. Take, for instance, the opening scene of the novel, in which a sinkhole in the land opens up and swallows an old man, a car and a dog. ‘Slippery bitch of a city’, Makina says to herself, ‘Always about to sink back into the cellar’. Here, the precariousness of the earth conveys the instability of life in Mexico City, while Herrera’s double entendre in ‘A few houses had already been sent packing to the underworld’ reminds us that the city’s foundations are inextricably linked to the criminals of the Mexican underworld, with whom Makina must negotiate in order to cross the border.
In a landscape containing whole ‘villages emptied of men’, those that remain are equally marked by their sense of anonymity. Mr. Aitch – a local overlord – surrounds himself with henchmen known simply as ‘Thug .45’ and ‘Thug .38’ (a nod to the calibre of their ammunition). These men are literally defined by their weapons, becoming the very personification of violence. Mr. P’s name similarly adds a sinister veil of anonymity; instead, Herrera characterises Mr. P by the ‘long, thin knife’ hanging from his belt as he eyes Makina’s crotch, adding to the sense of sexual violence and menace that defines her journey.
Makina’s role as negotiator and messenger is vital in developing Herrera’s narrative. Symbolically, she earns a living as the village’s switchboard operator, connecting those who have left for the promised land of America with the loved ones they left behind. As Makina tells herself, ‘You are the door’. However, in her new role she shifts from the precipitator to the active messenger, and in doing so, the messages themselves become secondary to her crossing. This crossing – or leaving – is marked by Lisa Dillman’s striking translation of the Spanish verb ‘jarchar’ to the English ‘versing’. Here, the act of parting takes on an implicitly lyrical quality, and indeed Makina’s journey through the underworld seems to nod to the epic tradition, to Orpheus and Odysseus.
In a story about crossing countries, topography is unsurprisingly a major theme, with Herrera’s descriptions of the earth’s belly juxtaposed with Makina’s visions of ‘hills’ – real and imagined, grass and concrete. As she enters Mexico City, Makina is met with ‘hills of hills cementing the horizon’. The compound description is another example of Herrera’s linguistic flair, creating a sense of infinity and an uneasy tension between the naturalistic and the synthetic, ‘hills’ sitting uncomfortably alongside ‘cement’ to convey Makina’s unease as she travels from the rural to the urban. Herrera goes on to describe how Makina dreams of scaling eight hills in the search for her brother, demonstrating how her quest is not just a physical but a mental journey – a literal learning curve.
Makina’s journey is also a linguistic one. Herrera pointedly alludes to Makina’s ability to speak several Spanish dialects, alongside ‘anglo’; however in America she encounters a new language spoken by Mexican immigrants, an ‘intermediary tongue’ that is ‘a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born’. This new language mimics the immigrants’ metamorphic qualities – a key asset to their survival in a frequently hostile environment. The importance of adapting to the language of an alien land is emphasised by Herrera’s description of a police officer shouting abuse at a group of Mexican immigrants. The officer’s ‘tongue… all pink and pointy’ is put on a par with the gun in his holster and is furthermore reminiscent of Mr. P’s knife. Herrera’s message is clear – language is a weapon.
This novel explores shifting landscapes, tongues and attitudes, moving between geographical states and states of mind. It is at its most exciting when the journey is being anticipated and traversed, at its most protracted and anticlimactic when Makina actually arrives in the USA. However, Herrera makes up for this by his use of complex symbolism throughout, and his gift for transforming abstract idioms and metaphors into concrete images makes Signs Preceding the End of the World a worthy examination of what it is to ‘cross the border’.